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Description of WW1 Operating Theatre

Photographs are often staged. And this is definitely the case in pictures of operating theaters from the Great War. I imagine the objective was to show a sterile, professional atmosphere.

But war is messy, and operating theaters on the Front were often occupied for hours on end. So what did a WW1 operating theater look like after twelve hours of surgery? British journalist FA Voigt left us a vivid account (complete with lice!) in his book, Combed Out.

[p 70] "The surgeons, anesthetists and sisters trooped out gaily to have tea and cakes in the shed opposite the entrance to the theater. Our work was not over yet for we still had to put everything in order for the day shift. The operating theater looked like a butcher's shop. There were big pools and splashes of blood on the floor. Bits of flesh and skin and bone were littered everywhere. The gowns of the orderlies were stained and bespattered with blood and yellow picric acid [antiseptic]. Each bucket was full of blood sodden towels, splints, and bandages, with a foot, or a hand or severed knee joint overhanging the rim. Two of us got pails of hot water and set to work with swabs, scrubbing brushes and soap. We mopped up the pools of blood and wrung our swabs out over the pans until dirty water became dark red. We scrubbed till our arms ached. With our bare hands we brushed the bits of flesh, skin and bone into little heaps and threw them into the buckets, and these we emptied into a big tub after picking out the amputated limbs which we carried off to the incinerator to be burnt. Within an hour and a half the theater was clean and tidy.

A heap of blankets and articles of clothing had been left in a corner. We loaded them on to a stretcher and carried them to a small tent some distance away.... We folded the blankets and stacked them carefully. Some of them were clammy and slippery to the touch. Others were stiff and hard. The rank smell of stale, clotted blood was sickening.

The clothing we carried to the pack store, a large marquee, where we sorted it, putting great coats, tunics, and

shirts on separate heaps. I was holding a shirt when I became aware of a tickling sensation across one hand. I hurriedly dropped the garment and lowered the candle so I could see it distinctly. It was swarming with lice. walked out into the darkness and made our way for our own marquee...."

Yikes! Not for the faint of heart. I'm afraid I would not have fared too well. Do you know of other accounts of "used" operating theaters?

-Combed Out is an outstanding primary source chocked with war details. This public domain book is accessible free online here.

-My full review of Combed Out is on Goodreads here.

-If you would like my six pages of notes on Combed Out (complete with page numbers and topic headings), email me and put “Notes for Combed Out” in the subject line.

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